This article previously appeared in The Positive Side, a publication of CATIE, here.
Une version française est disponible ici.
So what is a superfood, anyway? While there’s no standard definition, the general consensus is that a superfood provides an extraordinary amount of nutritional bang for the buck. It’s not just plant foods that qualify (kale, anyone?); there are many nutritious animal foods, too.
Nutrient-dense foods are one of the building blocks of good health. The body requires a balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals for repair and maintenance, to fight HIV and other infections, and to prevent various diseases. Many people with HIV experience a nutritional challenge at some point, as a result of either HIV infection or antiretroviral medications. The best way to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need is to eat a wide variety of healthy foods every day. But there are a few superstars that deserve our extra attention. Here are 8 that are especially beneficial to people living with HIV.
Quinoa and teff
While quinoa, the protein-packed grain-like food, has in recent years become popular in North America, teff remains largely unknown. Teff is a tiny North African grain, with a nutty, earthy flavour, that’s been around for thousands of years. It can be cooked in water (three parts water to one part teff, for 15 to 20 minutes) or teff flour can be used to make pancakes and baked goods.
Both quinoa and teff are rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium as well as magnesium, an essential nutrient with far—reaching health benefits that many people living with HIV are deficient in. Magnesium also plays a role in maintaining heart health, bone health and nerve function. In addition, it may reduce risk for diabetes, migraines and colon cancer. Both quinoa and teff are good gluten-free options.
Why Brazil nuts? In a word, selenium. This mighty mineral and antioxidant, while needed only in small amounts, carries a lot of clout. And it can be especially beneficial for people with HIV. The body uses selenium to produce enzymes and hormones, to prevent damage to cells and tissues, and to strengthen the immune system. Brazil nuts are also a great source of magnesium and other minerals. But keep in mind: You don't want to take too much selenium and nuts are calorie-dense. A small handful should suffice.
Whey protein powder
Whey is derived from milk during the cheese-making process. If you’re not getting enough protein, whey powder can provide an excellent source of easily digestible protein. Studies have shown that, when coupled with resistance training, whey can help to preserve muscle. It can also help people maintain a healthy weight. Whey may also help increase levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that is low in many people with HIV.
Choose brands that are free of artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners; opt instead for plain or naturally flavoured versions. The easiest way to use whey is in smoothies or protein shakes. Make sure you don’t overdo it though because it can strain the kidneys and cause diarrhea.
There’s a lot of talk about the pros of probiotics, but not all foods that claim to have them deliver on their promise. Probiotics—live bacteria that support the health of your intestines—have been part of the human diet for centuries. You’ll find them in fermented foods, such as kefir (a yogurt-like dairy product), sauerkraut or Korean kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage). These foods can help reduce constipation, gas, bloating and food intolerances. Since roughly 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut, a healthy gut means more robust immunity.
Salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and trout have an impressive amount of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These omega-3s can reduce a person’s risk of heart disease by lowering inflammation, blood pressure and triglyceride levels (a blood fat that can become elevated as a result of taking some HIV medications, such as certain protease inhibitors and older nukes like d4T and probably AZT and ddI). Fatty fish also have plenty of calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, choline (a B vitamin) and a decent amount of vitamin D. On top of all that, fatty fish may also be good for your mind and your mood—some studies suggest that omega-3s may help combat stress and ease depression. Two servings of fatty fish a week should be enough to help you reap the benefits.
Yes, eggs. After years of getting bad press because of their cholesterol content, eggs are now taking their rightful place as a nutrient-dense food. It turns out that the cholesterol in food has little impact on blood cholesterol, and the Harvard School of Public Health has given the green light to having an egg a day if desired (have fewer if you have heart disease or diabetes). Eggs are a great source of protein, folate, zinc, vitamins A, B2, B12, and choline. To avoid Salmonella, steer clear of foods that contain raw eggs, such as hollandaise sauce and some Caesar salad dressings.
Dark leafy greens
Kale, spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, dandelions and beet greens may look unassuming, but they are nutritional powerhouses. They pack a lot of potassium, which, along with reducing sodium, can lower your blood pressure. These greens are also rich in anti-cancer polyphenols, vitamins B, C and K, and are one of the best sources of lutein, sometimes called “the eye vitamin” because it may help prevent various eye diseases. Lutein also shows promise in reducing the risk for heart disease. It is best absorbed when these vegetables are cooked and eaten with a little fat, like butter or olive oil.
The star ingredient is cocoa polyphenols. Polyphenols—compounds found in different plant foods, such as apples, grapes, green tea and olive oil—are abundant in dark chocolate. These polyphenols protect the cardiovascular system by reducing damage to the lining of the blood vessels via their antioxidant properties. Several large studies have shown that eating dark chocolate may improve your lipid levels and lower your risk of heart disease. All that and it tastes fantastic!
About the author: Doug Cook is a registered dietitian and holistic nutritionist, and co-author of Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies.